Japan-US-Australia-Relations in the Emerging Indo-Pacific Regional System

20 Mar 2018
Japan-US-Australia-Relations in the Emerging Indo-Pacific Regional System

On 1 March 2018, the Perth USAsia Centre and the Consulate-General of Japan in Perth held a public symposium on Australia-Japan-US relations in the Indo-Pacific. The symposium brought together 30 international experts – from both government and business, and Australia, Japan, the US and other regional countries – to discuss developments in the regional politics of the Indo-Pacific.

The symposium focussed on the trilateral relationship/s between Australia, Japan and the US in the context of an evolving regional order. As the long-standing notion of the ‘Asia-Pacific’ region is gradually transforming to the extended ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept, how will the economic, diplomatic and security ties between our countries need to adapt to a changing regional context?

Panels comprised of expert speakers investigated triangular relations between Australia-India-Japan; maritime security cooperation across linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans; strategies for engagement with ASEAN under a changing multilateral architecture; and prospects for the US role and leadership in the region given recent developments in US foreign policy.

Discussions revealed a strong consensus behind the importance of the new Indo-Pacific regional concept, but that this will require significant renovations to the bilateral, minilateral and multilateral mechanisms for regional cooperation. While developments in the maritime security sphere have progressed significantly (including but not limited to the recent “Quad 2.0” announcement), much remains to be done in the economic space (particularly in terms of trade agreements and infrastructure cooperation).

Shared policy challenges in the emerging Indo-Pacific region

The rise of China, concerns over the US commitment, and the need to augment India’s regional engagement were identified as key shared policy challenges facing Japan, Australia and the US in the region today.  

The economic rise of China, combined with its growing maritime presence, is a leading source of insecurity for the Indo-Pacific. China’s leadership ambitions within the region are sharpening, and partners are mindful that China may view trilateral and multilateral dialogues as threatening. These may lead it to heighten the military and economic pressure which it is placing on the region.

There is also growing concern over the US commitment to the Indo-Pacific. This concern was first prompted when President Trump raised the issue of security ‘free-riders’ issue during the 2016 election campaign: that numerous countries, particularly Japan, had grown dependent on the US military for their protection. Despite improvements in the US-Japan relationship since these statements, this has increased Japan’s concern about the US commitment to the region. Discussions identified the gap between this statement, and subsequent actions of the Administration, to be leading to uncertainty over US intentions. The withdrawal of the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was also cited as a further source of such uncertainty. In his keynote speech, Hon Richard Court cautioned against Japan or Australia becoming complacent about the bi-lateral relationship between the two nations, and the close relationship both country currently exhibits with the Unites States.

India was also viewed as having a major role to play in the construction of the new Indo-Pacific concept. However, there are clear differences between regional hope and expectations of India’s role, and how India views itself in the broader context of the region. There is a consensus that the Indo-Pacific concept cannot succeed without India, and that its relationship with existing regional bodies – particularly ASEAN and APEC – needs to be strengthened.

When evaluating these challenges, Peter Varghese noted that each country was approaching these problems from  different perspectives, as their unique histories, interests and institutions influence their stance on key regional issues. However, deepened policy dialogues would assist countries within the Indo-Pacific to achieve a greater convergence in their approaches.

What is the purpose of Indo-Pacific regionalism?

An important question for the Indo-Pacific strategies Australia, Japan and the US is what purpose/s the new regional construct should seek to achieve. The Japanese Ambassador to Australia, H.E. Kusaka Sumio, suggested there is an emerging convergence of these countries approaches to the Indo-Pacific.  This was to “find a vision for a bright future based on free, open and rules-based international order, and to translate this vision into reality.” The Hon Richard Court AC argued that, in a world becoming used to disruptors, “the establishment of trust and respect is still our main goal.” He identified the relationship between Australia, Japan and the US as one of trust built over decades.

Despite the concerns the Trump Administration have prompted, its actions have ‘presented a perfect opportunity to go around the region, building a regional view about how to deal with uncertainty’.

Despite the concerns the Trump Administration have prompted, its actions have ‘presented a perfect opportunity to go around the region, building a regional view about how to deal with uncertainty’. Australia and Japan were identified as being particularly important in this regard. Vice Admiral Koda Yoji explained that in the event of any military crisis in the region, US forces based within Japan would likely be the first responders. As a result, Japan must align its future military strategies with those of the US.

Developing robust multilateral institutions was recognised as a key goal for the Indo-Pacific countries. The role ASEAN was considered a major area for growth, particularly through increased ties with Japan and India. Japan’s engagement is presently focused on the security sphere, based on maritime cooperation. Conversely, India’s is presently structured around its ‘Strategic Partnership’ with ASEAN, comprising of thirty dialogue mechanisms and seven ministerial forums. It was argued that greater connection between ASEAN and various mini-lateral mechanisms (such as the Australia-India-US and US-Japan-Australia triangles) can help Indo-Pacific nations cooperate in the face of uncertainty.

From strategic convergence to policy coordination

Australia and Japan already closely cooperate in their shared pursuit of a free, open, and rules-based regional order. The two nations share a special strategic partnership, alongside a strong bilateral relationship founded on deep economic ties. Further deepening Australia-Japan economic ties, particularly in the investment sphere, will aid both their own economies and regional integration as a whole. They can also play a critical role in the development of regional rules for cross-border infrastructure projects, which could ensure the economic security and stability of the region.

On the security front, increased cooperation in the maritime sphere was identified as a useful first step towards better strategic coordination. Information sharing, intelligence sharing and the enhancement of the interoperability between armed forces are all areas in which activities are already underway.

Enhanced interoperability is especially important, as it draws the ‘strategic gaze’ of US towards the Indo-Pacific, and provides opportunities for broadening trilateral exercises. Speakers acknowledged the recent re-emergence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (informally known as the “Quad”), and advocated that this concept incorporate partnering nations to engage on shared issues such as counter-terrorism. In relation to the Japan-Australia bilateral relationship, a reciprocal access agreement (a defence agreement often referred to as a visiting forces agreement) between Australia and Japan was highlighted by speakers to be an important step in enhancing cooperation between the two countries.

Building strong regional institutions which reflect the contemporary regional order is also a critical goal. Existing regional institutions, such as ASEAN and the East Asian Summit, provide important forums for dialogue on security issues. However, it is important for institutions to go beyond dialogue functions, and contribute to the rule-making which is necessary if a ‘rules-based regional order’ is to be realised. To do this effectively, Indo-Pacific regional institutions must be designed along open and inclusive, rather than closed and exclusive, principles. Fostering such innovation in the regional architecture will enable countries to not only coordinate their policies, but establish norms, rules and principles for governing their interactions.


As Xenia Wickett argued, the Indo-Pacific is undergoing a structural shift from a hub-and-spoke security system towards a more complex and networked security architecture. This places increased pressure on nations to work together in the face of rising challenges, increasing uncertainty and a changing geopolitical climate.

Importantly, the Indo-Pacific is an idea which did not derive from any one country alone.

The new Indo-Pacific concept provides a key mechanism for which this can be achieved. Importantly, the Indo-Pacific is an idea which did not derive from any one country alone. Rather, it reflects a strategic convergence between Australia, India, Japan and the US around shared principles and values. It remains a work-in-progress, which will continue to evolve as nations participate in broader discussions and other further cooperate with one another. The stability, security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific requires ongoing cooperation and open dialogue to map out institutions and mechanisms that can realise these shared goals.

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